The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality

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In this article, Katy Long tells us about her new book ‘The Huddled Masses’ that tackles the issues of immigration and inequality, which have been at the heart of so many political debates and struggles across the globe.

What does “fair” migration look like? Open borders? Visas for high-skilled workers? Walls and armed patrols keeping out the “illegals”? Ask most national politicians, and they will tell you that “fair” is about protecting citizens’ rights while not unduly restricting migrants’ freedoms, so that one group’s gains do not come at the expense of the other. A fair migration policy is one that does not exacerbate inequality: it’s a system that protects the poor at home from the undue competition offered by the poor over there. Global justice is a fine concept: but democracies privilege national responsibility.

These are the arguments we hear from politicians across the West. As the UK’s political parties jostle for position ahead of the May 2015 General Election, politicians from all sides compete to convince us they can fix our immigration “problem”. Whether measured in UKIP’s by-election victories, or David Cameron’s recent keynote speech pledging to reduce levels of low-skilled EU migration, all the solutions on offer look remarkably similar. And these same arguments find their echo in African politics too: the South Sudanese angry at the arrival of Ugandan traders, the Tanzanians and Rwandans who complain that the forward march of East African integration threatens their jobs. Apparently, if we want less inequality at home, we all need less immigration from abroad.

But what if this assumption is wrong? What if the drive to restrict migration isn’t reducing poverty here, but creating an international migration system that is actually exacerbating local inequality, turning freedom of movement into a privilege only accessible to the rich?

In my new book, The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality, I show why we need to rethink the relationship between immigration and inequality, and avoid pursuing policies that pit poor immigrants against poor workers at the expense of both groups.

These arguments are nowhere more relevant than in the African context, where many of the citizens who worry about competing with immigrants at home are also would-be migrants locked out of the West by visas, red tape, and border fences. The struggle to decide what “fair” migration looks like – national protection, or global justice – is an everyday contradiction negotiated by many African families I’ve interviewed.

It’s clear that migration is good for global equality. It’s a means of redressing the arbitrary assignment of citizenship-by-birth that determines, to a great extent, our life chances. This is not just philosophy: it’s economics. In 2012, the World Bank concluded that ‘more than fifty percent of one’s income depends on the average income of the country where a person lives or was born … a very large chunk of our income will be determined by only one variable, citizenship, that we generally acquire at birth’. Inequality is largely determined at birth and is tied to geography. This means there’s a powerful moral case for using migration as a means to remedy the arbitrary inequalities of birthplace that we usually conveniently ignore.

And the empirical case is solid too. In 2009, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) determined that migrants who moved from a low-income to a high-income country saw, on average, a 15-fold increase in income, a doubling of education enrolment rates and a 16-fold reduction in child mortality numbers. Migration also benefits families and communities left behind. In 2014, the World Bank estimates that migrants from developing countries will collectively send $436 billion in remittances home, more than three times the total amount pledged as Official Development Aid. Yet, despite the growing body of evidence showing that migration is good for development – and reduces global inequality – wealthy states are seeking to close their borders to low-skilled migration, insisting that we have to choose between inequalities, and that nationals come first.

The Huddled Masses doesn’t dismiss this argument. In fact, I argue that crux of the argument for migration as a form of global justice – its ability to reduce inequality between citizenship – is also the most persuasive progressive case for national borders: the ability of nation-states to reduce inequality between citizens. Nation states matter when they are able to build institutions that offer citizens a real equality of opportunity, made tangible in the form of education and healthcare, not just legal promises. If mass immigration threatens this ability to deliver social rights, then we’re right to see a choice between global and national equalities, to calculate immigration as a zero-sum game.

But as The Huddled Masses shows, it’s simply not true that this is a choice we have to make. The data shows that inequality is not caused or exacerbated by immigration. Instead, inequality is the result of the structures of capital that have captured many states, both in the West and in Africa, and hollowed out their commitment to equal citizenship. It is not immigration, but our immigration systems, that have been designed to perpetuate inequality both between citizenships, and between citizenship. For as leading migration scholar Stephen Castles reminds us, ‘migration control is really about regulating North-South relationships and maintaining inequality. Only when the central objective shifts to one of reducing inequality will migration control become both successful and – eventually – superfluous’.

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